Prose, Poem, or Prose-Poem? Does it Matter?

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One area of contemporary poetry that interests me is a blending of familiar categories, especially what’s usually defined as prose and what’s usually defined as a poem. Each of the terms suggest a set of conventions or essential criteria: a particular piece of writing must conform to these if it is to be understood as either ‘prose’ or ‘poetry’. This then raises the question: what are these crucial features? Since so many examples of contemporary poetry are presented in free verse, often with little or no attention to rhythm or sound, the most obvious and distinctive attribute that seems to remain, as I see it, is the line break or use of white space. Conversely, a line of prose as we know usually ends where the words find the right-hand side of the page and strike the margin. Perhaps it is arguable, too, that poetry is marked by concision or an economy of language: a subject that is potentially rather large has been crammed into a tight space, where what is excised is often just as important as what is included. Like the aforementioned white space, the elision of words, the use of metaphor and/or a sparseness of descriptive detail are often constitutional of what counts as a poem. 

How then do we recognise a prose poem? Often they will disregard the line break and restrictive use of description – and often they will disregard other common markers. It would be difficult to agree on the binding characteristics. Often, like visual art, the context – other works more clearly poems or the publication itself – may help to suggest how the reader frames the piece of writing. Rather than persevere with a debate on the definition, I would prefer to notice and celebrate that today, in the world of contemporary writing, such definitions seem to be in process of becoming less important. Equally, with wonderful creative results, standard forms are becoming dove-tailed and mashed up in some intriguing and experimental ways. For me, in the spirit of collage, artistic  practice is often about clashing together the incongruous, exploring tension and conflict; and this is also the case with familiar literary forms or registers. Originality – if such a word has any value or purchase today – consists in writing the interstices or imbrication of different forms of writing and holding back from assigning the end result a particular label. Unbroken Journal is certainly one publication where such innovations may appear.

I would like to name ‘Last Exit to Luton’, by Fran Lock (pictured), as an example of the kind of writing I refer to. This is a present favourite: I appreciate how unsure the ‘poem’ is of how it is to be read. As Glyn Maxwell notes on the Poetry Society page, ‘This poem had to overcome the fact I didn’t know if it was a poem or a prose-poem or prose and I wasn’t sure it knew. Maybe it doesn’t care, I don’t’.

I would like to see more risks along these lines; along with an attempt to write hybrid forms that incorporate not only familiar literary forms though also, potentially, registers which are seemingly incompatible, such as poetic language and academic commentary. In a culture and society that is also increasingly challenging what is fundamental to identity and binary thinking, the pursuit I’m advocating is all the more timely.

◄ Marsden Poetry Jam at the Railway Inn

‘The Legacy’ by Jennifer Malden is our Poem of the Week ►


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mike booth

Sun 21st Oct 2018 07:33

We campaign in poetry, we govern in prose, we think in poetry, we work in prose, we fly on poetry, we crawl in prose, we love in poetry, we fight in prose, we break rules in poetry, we make rules in prose... not for nothing is the word for beauty poetic or lyrical. And the word for mundane prosaic.
Great article... I would argue art should not be put into boxes - the question “is it a poem?”, like “Is it art?” Should be secondary to “does it move or touch or challenge me?” M

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mike booth

Sun 21st Oct 2018 07:26

Lauren Doriahna

Thu 18th Oct 2018 18:04

Great article. I often write what I deem as poetic prose.

Big Sal

Thu 18th Oct 2018 14:23

Prose is written with intention, poetry is done with intuition.?

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M.C. Newberry

Thu 18th Oct 2018 12:44

Interesting subject - always good for discussion.
I consider "communication" and the ability to remain in
recall as priorities in poetry, including both verse and
prose poems among personal favourites...with the former
ahead on sheer memorability and the pleasure of the "heartbeat" rhythm a good example should possess.
There can be a modern tendency to forget that words are
the tools of a writer's trade, to be chosen and treated with
care in both presentation and spelling. Too many slapdash
efforts suggest that this discipline is sidestepped, bringing
no credit to the writer or his/her product. If the lack of
effort is apparent, how can they expect anyone to bother
following through? Respect for one's craft works both ways. Love what you do, have something worth saying, respect its worth - and those you hope will want to read and/or hear it.

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